Onam in the time of Flood in Kerala

This year Thiru Onam went away without being even noticed. The internet was flooded with images of the catastrophic flooding of Kerala. Carrie and I thought of cooking our Ona Sadya next Sunday, September 2, luncheon at Atina Emporium. 

Ona Sadya is a meal of 15 dishes served on banana leafs placed on the floor for the entire family to sit together and eat, the food is cooked in by women assisted by men in the family’s kitchen. This is part of the great celebrations of Onam – a grand ten days long festival during which we perform acts of remembrances of Truth and Equality. 

Climatically, this is the time when South West monsoon winds which originate beyond the African continent in the Indian Ocean, travel via the east coast Africa, through the Red Sea and the Arabian peninsula, finally falling back in the Indian Ocean to perform the natural task of assisting the water regeneration in the land of Kerala through rains and floods.

 Human legends say, the Onam celebrations are acts of remembrance of the great sacrifices by King Maha Bali, son of the Wind God Vayu, for truth and equality. During his kingdom everybody was happy, there was no hatred, nor animosity. People took care of each other and the entire habitat was filled with love and respect. People were equal to their names and means within the living physical habitat with all other beings not just humans, but every one and every thing around.

When Gods became jealous of the prosperity of King Maha Bali’s land and people, they plotted to remove him from his Kingdom. Maha Vishnu, the greater God was persuaded by other Gods to incarnate as a dwarf named Brahmin, in front of Maha Bali, who is known for his kindness and truth. Brahmin asked for a grant of a piece of land, measured in just three steps of his little feet. When the King granted this favor, the dwarf suddenly transformed into a giant and devoured everything in just two foot steps leaving no place for his third feet. Maha Bali honoring his word bowed his head and Vishnu placed his third step on the king’s head, defeating him. The Gods condemned the king for his truthfulness, equality and good governance and sent him to the dark worlds of Paathaala. But before him, the son of Wind God left the Earth, gained permission to visit Kerala once in a calendar year during Onam celebration, when the South West Monsoon finally falls back in the Indian Ocean to perform its natural duty assisting water in its natural process of regeneration.

 Ona Sadya, or the great meal of the Onam festival is cooked primarily with rice, pulses and vegetables that come up in abundance during the bright sunny days which follow the long period of monsoon rain, wind and darkness. The first month in the Malayalam Calendar Chingam falls into this period of peace and brightness and the day of Thiru Onam is the most auspicious day when every family in the land of Kerala irrespective of their constructed identities cook a big meal at the home kitchen to share with everyone around as a mark of respect for nature.

In many homes in Kerala, the first set of dishes served on banana leafs are condiments and pickles. Inji Puli made of ginger, tamarind, black pepper preserved in Jaggery (unrefined cane sugar), is the first sweet condiment to put on the leaf because of its appetizing and digestive qualities. I often feel that this is consciously developed by great women cooks as an act of paying respect to the greatest vegetable spices – ginger, turmeric and black pepper – born in the sacred mountains and waters of Western Ghats, that were later spread all over the world.

 Onam Sadya is the product of the produce given by the landmass spread across Kerala’s 44 major and minor rivers. This is the season when rivers become peaceful after emptying the monsoon waters created by South West wind from the deep mountains of the Western Ghats back to the Indian ocean traveling through forest, mountains and plains which makes the landmass of Kerala unique on this planet. The water from the ocean flowing to the mountains as rains returns to the sea through rivers is a natural process of regeneration, the cyclical continuum of nature.

 This natural process has been happening in the Kerala coast for many years. The recorded history of Indian Ocean trade between Indian cities and Imperial Rome provides information about the usage of this South West Monsoon trade wind, which enabled people to travel between Mediterranean, African and Arabian ports and the Malabar Coast for trading. The traders left the Red Sea ports in June taking the advantage of the South West monsoon wind and sailed to Kerala coasts during this rainy season of July/August. They stayed back in India until the return of the wind or North East wind originated from the Chinese sea to take their ships back to Mediterranean costs in November/December as recorded in Periplus of the Erythraen Sea

The monsoon intensity in Kerala seemed to have made no negative impact on the flourishing trade between Malayalees and people from abroad. Most of the trade was agricultural goods and man made objects, implements, tools using natural materials. The agricultural products were and still are the best produced in the world, grown naturally in the fertile land of rivers, plains, valleys and mountains between Indian Ocean waters and Western Ghats which made this Coast rich for thousands of years.

Flood and rain are natural events occurring outside the human will and desire. Nature has its own set of algorithms to complete its own cycles of existence. Human beings are just one amongst the countless beings inhabiting this sacred land of waters, mountains and winds who learned through experience and wisdom how to co-exist with other beings without destroying the natural order. Only on few occasions in the long history of human interaction with nature major floods have entire cities been destroyed disrupting this oceanic trade, for instance during the XIII and XIV centuries AD when a tsunami attacked the coast and again later in the early XX century.

Water and Air, the Wind along with Earth, Fire and Sound are the five sacred elements that build our manifested world according to Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine widely practiced in Kerala. According to Ayurveda, any imbalance in any of these five natural elements can create destruction of the natural balance. The imbalances of nature can happen either due to human cause or non-human cause.

 After spending many depressing hours on the internet watching the catastrophic flood which has devastated the entire land mass of Kerala, I thought to ask myself how am I contributing to this great tragedy of Kerala’s present. What is my contribution to the imbalance of Nature and the living habitat?

 Kerala survives today, mainly from the revenue generated by the export and import of human beings as migrant laborers through a massive network of state and non state players to make them work as slaves in the rich Gulf countries. People from Kerala work tirelessly to enrich the fossil fuel industry and its owners. Whatever prosperity we see today in Kerala today is mainly due to the remittances coming from the Gulf countries, sent by these hapless indentured servants victims of the fossil fuel industry.

As happens in many parts of the world where the fossil fuel industry overtakes the living natural habitat where human beings produced food, practiced their natural skills and used natural materials, people in Kerala have deeply fallen into the traps of the fossil fuel induced promise of  “progress and development”. The traditional agrarian practices and all other related traditional occupations have either disappeared totally or partially or have become activities guided by intensive machine operations. There are hardly any remaining indigenous activities within Kerala reflecting the traditional sacredness of human interactions with Nature.

Almost all the mountains in the Western Ghats are under the occupation of stone quarrying mafia, legally and illegally who employ extremely dangerous methods of explosives to quarry stone from mountains. The forest lands across Western Ghat are occupied by land grabbing mafia for cash crop cultivation for international trade. The “so called” infrastructure development for the tourism promotion promoted extensive erection of multi story building against all natural ethics and morality. A cursory glance at the flood reports shows that major devastation taken place in those areas where mountains have been quarried extensively.

Throughout the planet, the living human habitat has changed drastically over the past four decades as a result of  to its dependence on fossil fuel and ensued migrant labor economy. During this time, people started to build houses using borrowed money. These houses, or fortresses, have with strong concrete walls protecting themselves from neighbors and have developed into a a totally consumerist culture of wastefulness and independent living, as is popular in the west. From a great tradition of mindfully living people in Kerala, a waste filled existence guided by fossil fuel money has been created, in this, the natural living habitat has become a desert.

 Kerala’s food culture today is scary and dangerous. The same people who consume millions of tons of rice, pulses, lentils, vegetables and meats hardly produce anything from their own land mass. The bulk of the food in this deserted land touristically called God’s own country, is now imported from abroad.  

Wise women and men from all over the world have been warning Kerala for long time about this impending disaster that happens when humans move away from their natural order and its laws, that they are being (mis) guided by the ideals of a global order, set up by fossil fuel corporations. 

In Ayurvedic system of medicine, the root of all diseases or imbalances in human physical body is caused by Prajna Aparadha, which could be translated as “crime committed by wisdom”. This happens when a person forgets or wrongly identifies the basic element of human existence – happiness or Ananda.

When people living in a natural habitat either knowingly or unknowingly choose something else for natural happiness such as iPhones, television or internet and lead a life of oblivion, the South West wind comes back to remind us that we are simple creatures, simple animals as the great visionary, Dr. Vandana Shiva, reminds us.

We have to remember that we are little animals crawling on the surface of this vast Mother Earth, surviving on the produce from just two feet above the soil. We have no other world to exist other than this beautiful Mother Earth.

 While the people in Kerala and elsewhere where these disasters continue to happen, are shown tremendous sympathy, kindness and resilience to get back to normal life, I feel it is also a time for all of us to think beyond the control mechanisms of the global fossil fuel industry, whose power is exercised visibly and invisibly everywhere, even in our very hands.